Waiting for the great leap forwards
As Jaguar ramps up F-TYPE production and marketing activity surrounding the car and the additional coupe body style, can it avoid the fate that has befallen other supercars?
After two days' driving Jaguar's monstrously fast new F-TYPE, F-TYPE S and F-TYPE R Coupes this week, there is no doubt in my mind that the car is more than good enough to be compared to Porsche's Cayman and 911. That it is priced betwixt these two shows both how cheeky and brave JLR is. But the big question remains: will it succeed?
I've been trying to find global volumes for another stupendously fast Porsche challenger; alas Nissan doesn't break out a number for the GT-R from total model sales data. Happily, the *US importer does, and 1,236 units of this US$100,000+ model were retailed in 2013. Not bad for a car that's now in its seventh year of production but let's be honest, the GT-R hasn't exactly changed the image of Nissan, nor has it ever sold anywhere near the levels of the 911. Over the years, the price has crept up and up, so while the GT-R might not at first glance seem to be a competitor for the new Jag, its size, performance and target buyers are similar.
So how did the Porsche 911 do last year? Very well indeed, is the answer. Deliveries were up 19% year on year to 30,205. As for the Boxster and Cayman, a combined rounded down 25,000 were sold but that number is just for the new shape cars which on went on sale from the northern hemisphere spring. As the addition of the higher power GTS derivatives from this spring shows, Porsche is the master at nurturing its vehicles over what can be relatively long lifecycles. As for Nissan, well, let's just say it has finally now seen that it must continue to evolve the GT-R, but there were a few years where nothing much happened, and you can guess what that did to sales.
What will be Jaguar's plan for avoiding the fate that has befallen the GT-R? Taking a lesson from the Porsche AG sales management handbook, the F-TYPE was launched into the right season for convertible sales in the world's big three markets for roadsters. British and American buyers instantly took to the car, and to a smaller extent, Germans too. Jaguar is a tiny brand in Europe's largest car market, so it's going to take some time for this new car to become known, and accepted.
Now that the initial order bank is starting to be filled, JLR has done exactly what's needed for the building of both profitability and brand - it has added cheaper but no less desirable new derivatives. If anything, the new Coupe looks even better than the Convertible.
What the F-TYPE is really all about, as one executive quietly admitted to me at this week's media drive event, is preparing the ground for the XE. Germans and perhaps surprisingly, Brits too, have little reason to switch out of their 3 Series, A4 and C-Class saloons & estates. There's a lot of media spending going on, and this will continue, as Jaguar's agencies have been tasked with getting all manner of target buyers thinking of a brand that probably hadn't been much considered.
If you missed the Super Bowl ad, no matter, as it's going to be shown in multiple countries outside the US in the coming weeks and months. For what it's worth, I like the idea that JLR is confident enough not to associate itself with German and Italian supercars and instead take a different tack. Will It's Good To Be Bad work in Britain? It might just do. Subtle humour often helps to sell cars, even if it doesn't usually feature in high priced segments.
The F-TYPE is now becoming established in the market, and the ad campaign for the Coupe will soon commence. JLR needs to get the Jaguar name out there in all the potential big markets so that the trickle down effect has a chance of happening in 2015 and beyond. That's when the really important additional cars will begin to appear - first the XE, then a crossover, to be followed by a fresh round of replacement models (XF, XJ and a far pricier XK successor).
I put it to the car's designer Al Whelan at the media launch that I could see as many as nine brand identifiers on the F-TYPE Coupe - and a further four if you specify carbon ceramic brakes. Yes, he agreed, that IS a lot, and quite a contrast to what the opposition has adorning its equivalent models. What the marketing types term the 'growler' (a graphic of the animal's piercing eyes and teeth) is on the grille and in the centre of the wheels, JAGUAR appears on the car's sides and rear spoiler (and optionally on some bright yellow brake callipers), along with the 'leaper'. In a car where an admirably obsessive level of detail exists to make sure everything looks and fits perfectly, it's a pity that as the wing lifts at 70mph and the name and logo catch your eye in the mirror, both are of course back to front. Whelan was honest enough to admit that the brand name had to be added at the rear in particular, as in China, the stylised leaping cat is not yet recognised by many people.
What then might next year bring for Jaguar - renaissance or a creeping realisation that the brand building hasn't worked, and that the cat will have to be euthanased? I would go for the former. Tata Motors seems willing to fund all the necessary investment, and JLR's management has proved superb at launching the right vehicles to turn Land Rover into a profits powerhouse.
The F-TYPE is the start of a new era for Jaguar and while there is going to be a lot of new product, some of us will be watching to see what happens to this car's development programme. There is a big power output and price tag hole between the new Coupe S and Coupe R so I would see a 500PS variant being slotted in there in 2015, to be followed by a GBP100,000+ limited edition RS. How about an all-wheel drive system? It's possible, I was told, and at the other end of the market, why not add the higher output versions of the forthcoming Ingenium four-cylinder engines? Expect that to happen in 2016, which is also when Porsche's once rumoured but now confirmed flat-four is set to start appearing in the Boxster and Cayman.
Product lifecycle management is vital in the car industry but not all companies are consistent with it. Fiat Group and Volvo Cars are two obvious examples, and in the past and even the present, JLR hasn't always been the best at it either: e.g. the ten-year old Discovery will be in production for a further two years. But. Jaguar has a lot of clever people, many of them passionate people too, willing it to succeed as never before. Plans exist, now they are being quietly executed, with the sports car the first, small but very public step: manufacturing facilities are being prepared for an eventual expansion to building multiple hundred thousands of leaper-badged cars and crossovers.
The F-TYPE possibly won't ever push above 25,000 cars in a single year, and it's unlikely to get to that level even in 2015, the first full year of production for both still-fresh body styles. Anyone who wants to see the big cat enjoying a big future should surely be hoping that right now, a not-too-long but laser focussed plan exists to keep the brutally beautiful F-TYPE selling briskly. If it's still going strong in 2017 and into 2018 thanks to the addition of extra derivatives, we will know that the brand has a searingly bright future - this car is right for Jaguar, and for the market, in 2014. Every additional and replacement model from now until the end of this decade will need to be too.
*Nissan GB was able to provide sales numbers for the GT-R but the data came through after this feature was published. In 2013, the registrations tally was 184 cars. Underlining what I had expected had been the situation, the GT-R's best year was its launch year (2009), when 1,032 were sold.